Jim Kenyon: The close of a trying year

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Valley News Columnist

Published: 12-30-2023 9:21 PM

Before signing off on 2023, I wanted to catch up with a few people I’ve written about this year. Here’s some of what’s new in their lives since we last talked.

Mohsen Mahdawi, who grew up in a West Bank refugee camp, has become a leading voice for Palestinian solidarity groups at Columbia University not only for his words but his actions.

In an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” that aired earlier this month, Mahdawi was asked about a Nov. 9 campus rally interrupted by an outsider who stormed out of the crowd shouting, “Death to Jews.”

Grabbing a megaphone, Mahdawi confronted the stranger. “You don’t represent us,” Mahdawi said in front of roughly 500 people. “This is not something we agree with.”

Mahdawi, co-president of Columbia’s Palestinian Students Union, told “60 Minutes” reporter Bill Whitaker the “fight for the freedom of Palestine and the fight against antisemitism go hand-in-hand. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Mahdawi, 33, lived in the Upper Valley before earning a scholarship to Columbia. Last week during the school’s semester break, Mahdawi returned to visit friends and check on the small cabin he’s built off the grid in West Fairlee.

After the Hamas terrorist attack on Oct. 7 that killed 1,200 Israelis, most of them civilians, and saw 240 people taken hostage, Mahdawi feared Israel would stop at nothing in seeking retribution.

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The Israeli government has long seen “Palestinians as less than human,” he said when we met for coffee.

Now the world is seeing it, he said.

Since the Israel-Hamas war began 10 weeks ago, Israeli air strikes and ground attacks have reportedly killed more than 20,000 Gaza residents, a majority of them women and children.

“The world is realizing that Israel is reacting irrationally,” Mahdawi told me. “People are becoming more aware of what Israel is doing is not justified.”

Mahdawi, who was last home in 2018, has learned that 22 members of his mother’s family in Gaza have died in the retaliatory attacks.

The war has spilled over to the West Bank, where Israeli forces and armed Israeli settlers have killed more than 280 Palestinians since Oct. 7, the New York Times reported last week. Two of his cousins are among the victims, Mahdawi said.

After his Upper Valley visit, Mahdawi has meetings at Harvard, Brown and Yale to help student leaders on those Ivy League campuses build coalitions of Palestinian solidarity groups.

It’s not about picking sides, Mahdawi said. “We are asking for equal rights for everyone,” he said. “This is a humanitarian movement.”

Keith Gokey, who has been homeless off and on in recent years, wasn’t expected to see 2023.

After Gokey suffered third-degree burns over 40% of his body in a Dec. 14, 2022 fire, a Hartford police officer reported the next day that it was believed “due to the extent of (Gokey’s) injuries, he will not survive.”

“I proved them wrong, I guess,” he told me last week. “I’m doing a lot better than I was.”

Gokey, 57, was hospitalized for much of 2023, undergoing multiple skin grafts at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He’s still in physical therapy to improve his mobility.

About a month ago, he moved into the Shady Lawn Motel in White River Junction. Gokey, who acknowledges that alcohol has long been his demon, was living in a “mobile shelter” on Old River Road in Hartford at the time of the fire.

With winter approaching, a fledgling nonprofit called Doorways Into Good Shelter, or DIGS, for short, had offered him a temporary home in one of its 6-by-12-foot structures built on a truck chassis.

The Vermont Department of Public Safety’s fire and explosive investigation unit couldn’t determine the cause of the fire, but its test of the structure’s propane heating system indicated “some type of leak.”

Gokey — for the time being, at least — has a roof over his head that’s within walking distance of Listen’s community dinners, which is where he was headed with a friend after we finished talking Wednesday.

“It took a propane explosion,” Gokey said, but he now qualifies for monthly Social Security disability benefits, which helps pay for his motel room.

On Thursday, 83-year-old Raelene Lemery was home in Stockbridge, folding second-hand clothes that she had washed and was now looking to get into the hands of people in need.

Which has always been her mission.

“I can’t sit around and do nothing when I know there are lots of people who could use help,” she said.

In late October, Lemery closed the nonprofit thrift store she’s run in South Royalton for 40 years.

“She was a solid presence in the town for as long as most people can remember,” said Adam Smith, general manager of South Royalton Market, a food co-op, a few doors down.

The Sunshine Thrift Shop was in the back room and basement of 108 Chelsea Station Restaurant.

As hard as it was to give up the store, Lemery recognized the time had come for her to slow down a bit. “Truly, it’s time for a rest,” she told me.

Lemery’s landlord, Tom Powers, had been giving her a break on the rent. After the restaurant closed in the spring, Powers told Lemery about a potential new tenant who was interested in renting the building for an eatery.

The deal fell through, but other possibilities remain, said Chet Powers, who is overseeing the property for his uncle. Combining a cafe with a self-service laundry, which would benefit the town — and its law school — is an idea being mulled over.

Meanwhile, Lemery’s “Thrift Store” sign dangles from a chain above the front entrance of the shuttered businesses.

“It breaks my heart to see it empty,” she said.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.